A post from Shady Characters

The Ampersand, part 2½ of 2

This is the last of three posts in a series on The Ampersand (&). Start at PART 1 or view ALL POSTS in the series.


In all the excitement about the origin of the ampersand and its various visual forms, I ran out of time to discuss the etymology of its name. This short entry is here to address that omission.


Although the ampersand’s creator (if it can be said to have one at all) is not recorded, there exists a popular misconception that the symbol’s name is taken from ‘Amper’s and’, after a supposed originator. Mentions of this derivation come from sources as diverse as an 1883 book on Personal and Family Names written by one H. A. Long,1 and more recently the collaborative, internet-based Urban Dictionary which suggests that the symbol was both invented by and named for a 17th century typesetter called Manfred Johann Amper.2 Unfortunately, both claims are undermined by a lack of corroborating evidence, and even more telling, ‘Manfred Johann Amper’ appears to never have existed.

The ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet, in My Own Primer, or First Lessons in Spelling and Reading (1857)
The ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet, in My Own Primer, or First Lessons in Spelling and Reading (1857) by Rev. John P. Carter. (Page image courtesy of the Michigan State University Libraries.)

The real origin of the word ‘ampersand’ likely owes more to Latin than to French, although it is a far more recent creation than the character which bears its name. During the 19th century, the ampersand was routinely taught as the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, and in common with those other letters which formed words by themselves — ‘A’ and ‘I’, for example — it was prefixed by the Latin per se, or ‘by itself’.3 Schoolchildren would recite “X, Y, Z, and per se and”, while particularly bored pupils would not so much recite as slur the final syllables to yield any one of a dazzling variety of words. This entry from Farmer & Henley’s 1905 Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English recorded some of them for posterity:

Ampersand. 1. The posteriors. 2. The sign &; ampersand. Variants: And-pussy-and; Ann Passy Ann; anpasty; andpassy; anparse; apersie (a.v.); per-se; ampassy; am-passy-ana; ampene-and; ampus-and; am pussy and; ampazad; amsiam; ampus-end; apperse-and; empersiand; amperzed; and zumzy-zan.4

‘And-pussy-and’, ‘ampazad’, ‘zumzy-zan’ and their ilk have since fallen by the wayside, leaving ‘ampersand’ alone to tell a tale of rote learning and enervated schoolchildren.5

1.
H. A. Long, “Birth names,” in Personal and family names, Hamilton, Adams {&} co., 1883, p. 98+. ↩︎
2.
ampersand,” Urban Dictionary, 2011. ↩︎
3.
E. S. Sheldon, “Studies and notes,” in Further notes on the names of the letters, Ginn {&} company, 1893, vol. II, p. 158+. ↩︎
4.
J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, “ampersand,” A dictionary of slang and colloquial English, p. 10+, 1905. ↩︎
5.
ampersand,” Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011. ↩︎

21 comments on “The Ampersand, part 2½ of 2

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. The ampersand’s story would have been incomplete without a look at the etymology of its name, and I enjoyed writing this little piece.

  1. Comment posted by The Modesto Kid on

    Nice. Is that misconception really so popular though? I never heard of it until the other day when I was following links from your previous column. I str it being pretty easy to find out back in grade school, that “ampersand” was an elision of “and per se and” — glad to know the genesis of this phrase.

    1. Comment posted by Andrew Perron on

      Personally, I hadn’t heard of the true derivation until the comments on previous articles here, so it’s definitely worth stating for the record.

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi MK, Andrew,

      I came across the “Amper’s and” (or occasionally “Ampère’s and”) derivation surprisingly often when researching the article, though the two references mentioned here were the most intriguing. I can’t decide if the Urban Dictionary entry is an inspired piece of deadpan trolling or a genuine misconception that there was once existed a Manfred Johann Amper.

  2. Comment posted by Emlyn on

    Nice, I think I’m going to call it a zumzy-zan from now on :-)

  3. Comment posted by Mark on

    I just found your site, and as both a history and language buff I love it. Have you found any information on the origin of the symbol located on Open Source Ampersand (David’s post above) on the 3rd row/3rd column and 4th row/4th column? They look to be a variant more closely aligned with et, essentially a cursive capital e with a vertical line through it, than with the ampersand per se. Thanks!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Mark,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the site, and thanks for the comment.

      I’m afraid I don’t have any more info about those two particular ampersands. If I had to guess, I’d think they might be based on a rough cursive rendering of the standard ampersand rather than an et ligature, but I say that only because I’m not sure how widely known the et derivation is. Perhaps another reader has the definitive explanation!

  4. Comment posted by Jerry on

    Thanks for the interesting article. My father-in-law was a printer by trade, and always maintained that the name “ampersand” came from the printing trade, back in the days of hand set cold lead type. The typesetter would call out the words and be passed the relevant characters to set. “And per se and” was used to differentiate between the letters “A,N, and D” and “&”, and eventually became ampersand.

    Obviously, I don’t know the truth of this, but I have to say that to me it’s quite a plausible explanation. More so than reciting school children, but that is only my opinion, of course.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jerry — I’m afraid I can’t confirm or deny the alphabet recital theory; I’m just citing the sources I found. Thanks for the comment, though! Perhaps this is another avenue to look into.

  5. Comment posted by Catanea on

    Strangely, my first official calligraphy teacher believed the sign was called an “amfersam”. I felt somehow guilty telling her otherwise.
    My family once owned (I am told it has been lost in a flood) one of those enormous Merriam-Webster dictionaries six or seven inches thick… I loved it’s entry for “ampersand” which included the verse:
    “Any odd shape folks understand
    To be my ubiquitous ampersand”
    I’m waiting for some dictionary collectors’ website or Google page to come up with a page image of that one, since the book is gone.
    On a tangent, when my husband and I began teaching calligraphy in France a quarter of a century ago, hardly any one knew a name for the symbol &. Since then, France Telecom has adopted the ampersand as its symbol and there are now dictionary entries.
    Nonetheless the French word “esperluette” or “éperluette” has not been outfitted with a convincing etymology that I’ve seen yet. But obviously to me it suggests ” ‘et’ per lui ‘et’ ” or some similar analogy.
    Maybe one of your readers has more clues?
    A very dear friend once made me a lovely glass etching of my Christian name: “Amanda” in the form:
    AM
    &A
    I love it, but I spend too much time in non-anglophone countries, where its identity as an ET ligature is highly transparent. And “Ameta” hasn’t grabbed me yet.

  6. Comment posted by Nancy Upper on

    What is the origin of the term “ampersign”? I have heard ampersign roll naturally off the tongues of a graphic designer and non-designers, as though they have used the word since childhood. Does anyone know ampersign’s provenance? Is it a regionalism?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Nancy,

      I’m afraid I haven’t come across the use of the term ‘ampersign’. It certainly feels like it could be a corruption of ‘ampersand’, but other than that I’m afraid I have any more than that.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. Comment posted by Edwin Arango on

    Hi Keith,
    I’d like ask you if you know the verses of the alphabet with children learned the alphabet including ampersand?
    I know that the last verse recited was “X, Y, Z, and per se and”, but each letter had a verse to be learned, you know those lines?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Edwin — I don’t know the verses themselves, I’m afraid. My reference was from Sheldon’s Studies and notes, given above. Sorry I can’t be of more help! Thanks for the comment.

  8. Comment posted by Wide Spacer on

    Hi,
    Your explanation could be clarified a bit. The use of “per se” in reciting the alphabet seems to be a habit that comes more from spelling, as described fairly clearly in “A Glossary” by Robert Nares. It was used to clarify words from letters in the case where you were spelling several words, or syllables, and pronouncing each word or syllable after spelling it (“d, o, g, dog”). The form that was used was “letter per se word”, so if I was spelling “I am a dog” I would say “I per se I, a, m, am, a per se a, d, o, g, dog.”

    Apparently the alphabet was recited in this form to get students in the habit for when they were spelling (guesswork on my part). With the “&” coming at the end of the alphabet, people at the end would say “and per se and”. This did NOT mean and[conjuction] by itself the letter “and”. Instead it meant “The letter ‘and’ which by itself means ‘and'”. And in fact the earlier form of this is “et per se and”, because of course “&” would’ve been pronounced originally as “et” not “and”. (Note the widespread use of the abbreviation “&c.” instead of “etc.” 150+ years ago.)

    This habit of saying “A per se A” is very very old, evidenced by it’s use as an expression that meant someone who stands apart from (above) everyone else, i.e a great person or a self-centered one. Examples of this expression can apparently be found in both Chaucer and Shakespeare.

    Also, regarding the idea that this came from the printing industry, I seem to recall that they’ve called the ampersand the “small-and” for a very long time, but I can’t seem to confirm that at the moment.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Thanks for that! You’re quite right — per se was used to distinguish single-letter words from the single letters of which they were comprised.

      If printers called the ampersand “small-and”, has there ever been a corresponding “big-and”?

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